6.3 FORMATION OF A GOD CONCEPT (Year 12 students' images of God)

From the doctoral research study of young people's spirituality by Michael Maroney (2008). He studied the views of Year 12 students from 3 Catholic secondary schools in Sydney. This material here is from the final chapter of the thesis where he draws conclusions from the data coming from the group interviews. As noted in the separate powerpoint, the data came from group discussions where a series of stereotypes about images of God were presented in cartoons.

Table 6.6 Key conclusions regarding students' images of God

Figure 6.7 Images  of God funnel

Comments on the results from the group interviews on Y 12 students images of God, from the last chapter of the thesis

The respondents in this study tended to articulate a spirituality that contained a diversity of elements. God may or may not be included in the mix, but most of the sample believed in God or a ‘higher power'. The diagram in Figure 6.6 explains the development of an image of God in the form of a ‘funnel.' Various God concepts filter through the minds of young people in their quest to seek out a meaningful, realistic and personal image of God.

The image of God that was most commonly acknowledged as part of the students' worldview was a deity that is not judicial and menacing. Neither is their God a recorder of wrong doing and a punisher of trivial misdemeanours. God for a number of Catholic school students has a nature that is unconditionally loving and forgiving. Young people approach God via prayer that is neither formal nor submissive. Communication is informal and intimate and largely in a mode of petition. A significant number of young people felt that knowing who God is cannot be fully understood. This natural uncertainty is consistent with the prevailing mood of “cultural postmodernity” (Crawford and Rossiter, 2006, p. 52). Therefore, images of God from other faith traditions and their expressions of God will also be considered and incorporated into spirituality with an eclectic mix – along with the images from young people's own religious tradition.

The image of God can be like a personal opinion – everyone has their own idiosyncratic version and all opinions are accepted and respected, unless they appear to be harsh or unrealistic. Ecclesial language that asserts Catholic traditions and doctrine as containing more ‘truth' than other religions tends to be questioned by a number of young people.

If senior school students are stating that this is their image of God then there appears to be little congruence with the Trinitarian doctrinal aspects proposed by traditional Christian faith. This appears to be the case even though other research shows that young people will endorse Trinitarian theological statements (Flynn & Mok, 2002; Hughes, 2007; Smith & Denton, 2005). They may have knowledge of the Christian Trinity, but this is not necessarily inconsistent with having a non-Trinitarian, personal image of God.

Young people's image of God, while naturally vague and not precisely defined, is a core element in their spirituality which determines their stance on various theological questions. The mechanism may often operate in a negative fashion, where young people question particular theological views simply because they cannot see how such views could be compatible with their notion of God. For example, they do not see that their lives are so full of wrongdoing that residual guilt, the sacrament of reconciliation, and purgatory are relevant, or realities.

That would be inconsistent with their sense of a loving, caring, forgiving God; and they do not need to go through the Church to get access to this God. Young people do not want to attend or participate in formal religious services as an expression of their belief in God. They would rather spend time on their own and pray, or be involved in social justice activities that try and model what the Jesus of the Gospels did. Again, for young people, belief in God is individualistic and experiential. If it is relevant and worthwhile then it becomes a part of their spirituality. If not, then it tends to be discarded or ignored. And they do this with no sense of guilt or notion that they may be setting themselves up for an eternity in the fires of Hell.

Hence, attention to the question of ‘images of God' should be central to a school's study of spirituality. The type of image of God that young people have can be considered as highly likely to have a predetermining influence on the style and direction of their personal spirituality. The scope of their spirituality will be within the limits set by their notion of God. They feel comfortable doing what their image of God will ‘permit' them to do; this may well be the same principle that has affected people with more traditional Christian images of God; it is just that the image of God for many young people is ‘more relaxed' – a more ‘permissive' spirituality is consistent with an image of a more ‘permissive God'. An image of God as loving, caring, forgiving, not just identified with one religion, and, above all, personally available to young people, tends to enable a more individualistic, free style of spirituality than an image of a God who is ‘checking and recording' their behaviour.

It would be important for an education in spirituality to help young people understand these issues. Their image of God is not just dependent on their traditional religion, but it takes into account other sources. Their image of God can be culturally influenced by many different ideas and experiences. In this sense, their image of God is ‘educatable'.

Yet another important question to include in religious education about God is to acknowledge that personality and personal needs can also have a type of predetermining influence on one's image of God. Even to acknowledge this possibility through education could be regarded as a significant element in spiritual maturity.

This discussion suggests that Catholic religious education needs to address the way in which young people conceptualise, and believe in God. There is evidence to suggest that just telling them about the Christian notion of God is not sufficient; a good number are already not accepting fully the models of God that are embedded in the curriculum which reflects traditional Catholic theology. As noted in the previous chapter, for some young people, a degree of confusion about the meaning of biblical stories can also lessen their confidence in the Church as a source of ideas about God. If students believe in God and they have a sense of God's existence, even if somewhat vague, then this still provides a common ground or framework where further study of questions about God can be considered. A more open-ended exploration, rather than a relatively exclusive, didactic, exposition of traditional doctrines, may actually be a more appropriate pedagogy for helping students to better appreciate the God of Catholic traditions in any case.

For young Catholics, the image of Jesus is often central to their notion of God. Hence, studies of the historical Jesus and the Christ of Christian faith are integrally connected with education about God. The Gospel/social justice Jesus is popular amongst young people and this is also reflected in their significant level of community engagement. Involvement in social service and social action is not ‘distant' from their understanding of God, but can be a potent statement of whom and what they think God is. This too has significant implications for the social justice orientation in the school curriculum and organisational life.

In addition, this interpretation of young people's spirituality links in with attempts to help address the problems associated with excessive individualism (considered earlier). If students can believe in a God who is reflected in the person and ministry of Jesus, then this may also provide them with a better sense of community, whilst at the same time transcending the superfluous needs and wants of the self.

Also consistent with this approach is the need to look critically at culture and how that is related to spirituality.

Faith will ask culture what values it promotes, what destiny it offers to life, what place it makes for the poor and the disinherited with whom the Son of Man is identified, how it conceives of sharing, forgiveness and love (Pope John Paul II, 1981, cited in Crawford & Rossiter, 2006, p. 406).

Therefore, it may be a matter of closing the gap between theory and practice. Religious education can become more valuable for adolescents if a sense of hope and action is engendered in the quest for faith development in adolescents, rather than an exclusive emphasis on theology. Students could be encouraged to reflect on and articulate their image of God without fear of challenging Catholic dogmatic concepts.

In this way the relationship they develop with God is also not so exclusive and individualistic. In addition, the cartoons used in this study that portrayed some images of God (Figures 4.5 - 4.12 & 6.3) may be used and developed as a means to identify and evaluate some of the stereotypes associated with a God concept. If other students share a similar idea of God then that concept and personal relationship can be further enhanced by making it communicative and communitarian. Students may then make more links between Jesus, social action, and the faith community. This approach seems appropriate for disposing young people to consider some commitment to a faith dimension, as part of their spirituality that is fulfilling, self-affirming, and grounded in community.